- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

ANNAPOLIS (AP) Crime and accident victims do not have an automatic right to sue 911 operators and dispatchers for damages resulting from negligent performance of their duties, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The court said in a 6-1 ruling that lawsuits can be pursued in some circumstances if victims can prove that a special relationship existed with the dispatcher. But the judges rejected claims in two lawsuits filed by mothers who said mistakes by 911 operators contributed to the deaths of their children.

One of the lawsuits was filed by Sarah Fried, whose daughter, Tiffany Fouts, died of hypothermia in Harford County in 1995.

According to the appeals court opinion, the girl became semiconscious after drinking alcohol in a private home with another girl and four boys, all minors. After she was sexually assaulted, two of the boys dragged her outside and left her lying in nearby woods.

One of the boys then called to report her location behind "K" Court, but the dispatcher sent a sheriff's deputy to search the area behind "J" Court. Police could not find her and she died of exposure to the cold November rain.

In the second case, Sriyani Muthukumarana was talking to a 911 aide in Montgomery County in 1998 about an assault by her husband when he came back downstairs with a gun and killed two of their children before killing himself. She said the aide was negligent in not telling her to leave the house immediately with the children.

The Court of Appeals said emergency telephone system employees do not have immunity from lawsuits. But the majority said plaintiffs can sue for negligence successfully only if they can prove they have a special relationship with the employee that "involves more than general actions taken to serve members of the public at large in need of emergency telephone services."

"To do otherwise might jeopardize the availability of those services in the first instance," the opinion said.

Chief Judge Robert Bell, in a dissent, said the majority position was "nonsensical."

"I have not the slightest doubt that 911 operators in these cases owed the victims in these cases a duty of care," he said. He said he believes that "a special relationship is created when a caller calls 911 to report an emergency."

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